Johnson: Once promising NCAA Tournament hopes now a faint glimmer for Northwestern

Chris Johnson

This was supposed to be the year. That is, the year in which coach Bill Carmody finally led Northwestern to its first NCAA Tournament berth in program history. The stage was set: With senior forward John Shurna and junior guard Drew Crawford returning, a failure to qualify for the most gripping postseason tournament in sports surely would not come down to a lack of talent.

Most, if not all, preseason prognosticators pointed to the Wildcats having more than enough firepower to qualify for the field of 68. Some optimists even believed they could contend for a championship in what has turned out to be the nation’s best conference.

But after a crushing two-point loss to Purdue at home Saturday, those preseason tournament hopes now look like nothing more than a pipe dream.

The Cats flashed their NCAA Tournament potential throughout the non-conference portion of their schedule, winning 10 of their 12 games, including three against opponents from the six major conferences.

I know what you’re thinking – the Baylor game. Yes, the then-No. 7 Bears walked into Welsh-Ryan and made the Cats look like a JV team. But with Scott Drew’s squad now vying for a one-seed come March, that Dec. 4 loss doesn’t look so bad.

Like the Baylor loss, the Cats’ other nonconference slip up – an eight-point loss at then-No. 23 Creighton – did little to hurt their postseason resume. The Blue Jays are a near lock for an at-large bid out of the Missouri Valley Conference and they’re generally regarded as one of the best mid-majors in the land.

Then, the conference season happened, and all those nonconference wins were quickly forgotten.

In the nation’s best conference, there are no cupcakes. I try to avoid